Sanford and Thomas Bingham, along with their father Erastus Bingham, arrived in Utah in September 1847 with the Mormon pioneers. In 1848 they began grazing their cattle in the area of the mine, but the brothers quickly discovered something they thought could be far more valuable than cattle: copper ore. By 1868, Utah’s copper industry had grown to such an extent that it attracted immigrant workers from all over Europe. By 1912, after a large influx of Greek migration to Utah, there were 3,239 laborers, and Greek-Americans made up 37.4 percent of the labor force among eleven different ethnicities, some of which included Serbian, Italian, and Russian. Immigrants accounted for 65 percent of Bingham’s population by 1914.
The story of immigrant labor within the Bingham Canyon Mine paints a picture representative of Utah’s simultaneous employment of and discrimination toward immigrant workers. Immigrants were paid considerably less for much harder work. Average pay for the Southern and Eastern Europeans was about $1.50 to $1.75 per day, about half of what the Anglo workers were making. At the time, many immigrants were simply happy to have steady work, something that would have been a luxury in their home countries.
Compounding the challenging circumstances of their living conditions, immigrants found opposition from locals and other ethnicities. The Ku Klux Klan’s branch in Salt Lake County was active around the mining towns that attracted Eastern European immigrants, and some Greek immigrants in Magna tell of the KKK’s white cross burning at the end of the street. Less than a month after the Utah Copper Company absorbed Bingham Canyon, newspapers reported race riots at the smelters. Serbians, Austrians, Italians, and Greeks were often found feuding and killings were not uncommon. In one instance, a conflict among Greeks and Italians became violent at the Bingham Canyon smelter and police were called to regulate it. Conflict toward immigrants became so heavy that in 1904, the “dastardly crime” of one Greek man prompted the mayor of Murray to propose a forced exodus of foreigners out of the mines and surrounding towns.
Mexican and Mexican-American workers were also present in the canyon when the Utah Copper Company used them to break strikes in 1912. Most did not stay after the strike was resolved, but company records from 1918–1910 contained many workers with Spanish names. World War II brought more demand for workers and more immigrants flooded in. The company magazine, Kennescope, emphasized the mine’s diversity in 1953 by showing the twenty ethnicities present in the area.
As the mine was re-graded over the years, landslides were common and “every time they’d blast [the mine], boulders came rolling down the hill, several times right through [the houses].” On April 10, 2013, two massive landslides only an hour and a half apart resulted in 145 million tons of rock waste tumbling down to the bottom of the open pit mine. The Utah Geological Survey bills it as the largest mining-induced landslides in history. Luckily for employees, Kennecott had foreseen the disaster and there were no injuries. There was however significant damage to the infrastructure of the mine as well as costly damage to Kennecott’s equipment. The four and a half years since then were devoted to cleanup. Still, Bingham Canyon Mine continues to operate. Although there is little new ore production, the mine still maintains a modest profit.